The drive from Rome to Matera is approximately 300 miles. Possible stops along the way can be time consuming. A stop in Naples is not recommended, as driving there is very challenging (though once you get over the cultural shake-up, Naples is a very exciting and rewarding place). It would make an excellent extended day trip from Rome or Alfani. Caserta had beautiful spots (and the ancestral home of my husband’s family), and is worth more than a lunch stop. Personally, for such a drive, given the uncertainties of what traffic lies ahead, I prefer a quick lunch at a roadside stop, and getting to my destination as early as possible.
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Matera, famous for its Sassi, an ancient complex of caves, is located amidst some of the most spectacular landscape scenery in southern Italy. Age-old olive groves and vineyards line the road, along with grazing sheep and goats in rocky fields. I stayed in a uniquely contemporary cave on the edge of the Sassi with fine views from the master bedroom and small balcony. See a Room with a View.
The Sassi, a UNESCO world Heritage site, is believed to be one of the oldest continuously occupied human settlements in the world. The Sassi is divided into two districts (Sassi Barisano and Sassi Caveoso). These areas are a natural honeycomb in stone, with over 1,500 caves.
Warning to visitors: The Sassi’s labyrinth of narrow streets, caves and stairways are best explored on foot, and getting lost in them is very easy (and I know first-hand). Get a map, with landmarks on it, and plan out your walk before going. There are some street signs in the Sassi, but not many.
The earliest cave dwellings date to the late Paleolithic era (more than 10,000 years ago). The primitive dwellings were followed in successive centuries by more elaborate structures built over them. The scenic caves have often been the backdrop in such films as The Passion of Christ. Until relatively recently, the caves were still occupied by residents living in poverty; most without heat or plumbing, and cohabitating with livestock. In the 1960s, the government stepped in and moved the population living there to new housing projects. Only years later did people return to renovate and repurpose many of the caves.
Much of the Sassi’s long and varied history can still be seen in its churches and frescos and in the overall look of caves’ exteriors. Inside are now cave houses, restaurants galleries and hotels. Many parts of the Sassi remain uninhabited, giving the whole area a kind of prehistoric mystique.
The Casa Noha offers a short multimedia exhibition that explains the area and its history, and provides a fine overview of the Sassi and its culture. Over 150 cave churches include intimate religious spaces; some with cave art painted between the 8th through 14th Centuries. The Rupestrian Complex of Matera includes the Church of Madonna Delle Virtu, a 12th Century church carved out of the tufa rock. Its religious cave paintings are simply amazing.
Craco is a ghost town about one-hour south of the town of Matera. It is built onto the summit of a steep cliff. It is a fragile ghostly spectacle of a village and a great photo opportunity. If you want to go into the deserted ghost town you must take an scheduled tour, as the town is behind gates, for its protection and yours (due to natural disasters). For me a quick stop with photos sufficed.
Another of the most scenic areas in Italy’s south, and one of the least explored, is the Puglia region. It is off most beaten paths, especially in the fall/winter season. Puglia is 500 miles of dramatic coastline bound by the Ionian and Adriatic seas. Puglia, like the rest of southern Italy, has been molded by an unending parade of conquerors and diverse civilizations. It thus boasts a unique fusion in its architecture, culture, and food, all with a Mediterranean mix of color and flavor.
The luminous white hill towns and the proliferation of distinctive trulli (stone huts with a conical roof; plural, the singular is “trullo”) of this region make this area especially unique. The trulli are found in the southern part Puglia. They are a mortarless construction from a technique developed long before recorded history. Trulli can be found in smaller numbers in Turkey and Syria. Trulli construction is still used in Puglia today. The town of Alberobello sports the highest concentration of trulli, but they are scattered throughout the Itria valley. You can stay in one of these cozy houses, often surrounded by ancient olive groves, and really absorb the ambiance of Puglia. See a room with a View.
Monopoli is a good central town in Puglia to be able to visit areas north or south on day trips. The agricultural inland portion of Monopoli is full of orchards and groves. Some of the gnarled olive trees are estimated to be 2,000 to 4,000 years old. On many of old manor farms, you can find trulli for rent among olive groves or orchards. These have been in families for many generations and help to supplement their incomes.
The Centro Storico in Monopoli sits up against the Adriatic coast and is an idyllic fishing village with a charming historical core, and a scenic harbor often filled with fishing boats and local fishermen mending their nets or returning with their catch of the day. It is a “white city”—virtually all the buildings are painted white—with narrow mazelike lanes filled with geranium covered balconies and lines of drying laundry floating in the wind. Homes are interspersed with shops, galleries and cafes.
The real tourist destination in Monopoli is the old town itself, a walkable city with many interesting buildings with people in their daily activities, and views out to sea. The 10th Century Museo Della Cathedral, and the 12th Century Chapel of Santa Maria Amalfitana worth visiting. A very unusual church in Monopoli is the Chiesa Santa Maria Del Suffragio or Chiesa del Purgatorio. In this church there are a number of naturally-formed mummies on display, standing upright in a case on the wall. It is believed they were put there to remind visitors of the suffering and pain of purgatory awaiting those who sin without repentance. See sacred Spaces
There are amazing backroad trips from inland Monopoli that take you through the lush Itria valley of orchards, olive groves and goats surrounded by stacked stone hedges and trulli. The tour ends in Ostuni, which marks the edge of the trulli area in Italy.
Another daytrip trip from Monopoli is to Polignano a Mare for lunch, and then onto Bari, the largest city in the area.
Polignano a Mare
Polignano a Mare, built on the edge of the Adriatic, has been a settlement since prehistoric times. Its earliest documented origins from the 4th Century BC list it as a Greek city known as Neapolis. It was later occupied and expanded by the Romans. A small old town is accessible through the Porta Vecchia gate. Porto Bianco has dramatic town views with great photo opportunities. Lama Monachile Cale Porto is a romantic, intimate beach, sheltered between two tall rocky walls. Watching the ocean change colors here with the light against the rocky cliffs is intoxicating especially at sunset.
Bari is the tale of two cities: a spacious contemporary new town and the picturesque old quarter set near the edge of the prominent peninsula. It is a passage hub for other destinations in the Mediterranean by ferry. A trip mentioned in a later blog will be from Bari to Croatia, on a ferry leaving directly from this port.
The principle landmarks in Bari are Castello Normanno-Svevo with its seaside location and imposing size. It was built in the 12th Century. Since its 16th Century transformation by the Aragons of Spain, it has features a moat, towers and drawbridge. The castle contains changing exhibitions and a museum. A well-known pilgrimage sight is Basilica San Nicola, a magnificent Romanesque church consecrated in the 12th Century. Saint Nicholas is buried there. His alleged secret gift-giving gave rise to the idea of Santa Claus (Saint Nick). Museo del Succorpo della Cattedrale is a subterranean museum beneath Bari. Its collection includes cathedral fragments of an ancient basilica, artefacts of a Byzantine church, and Roman ruins including a section of a street. It is an offbeat underground adventure which gives visitors a sense of Bari’s multilayered history.
A road trip through is Itria valley is full of spectacular views, great food, wine and a chance to absorb the atmosphere of this scenic region. The trip begins in Alberobello and ends in Ostuni
There are no top tourist destinations except for the trulli of Aberobello. Caravans of tourists arrive here daily. The Rione Monte section of town has the greatest concentration, with over 1,000 of the trulli. Many of these structures are souvenir shops, restaurants, or hotels. The less commercial, more residential Rione Aia Piccola section has 400 of these trulli. You will have a more authentic experience of this village, free of the souvenir peddlers and you will see local residents in daily life. There is one two story trullo in Trullo Sovrano, which is now a small museum.
The next stop headed southeast is Locorotondo (“Round Place”), an enchanting white hilltop town. It is a great stop for lunch or a drink, or to just relax and enjoy the moment. Locorotondo has amazing views of the countryside from its highest points. The historical part of town has a unique style of architecture. The building design is tall and narrow with steeply pitched roofs known as “cummerse.” The most well-known product from this town is DOC Locorotondo white wine.
Down the road from Locorotondo is Martina Franca. Don’t be put off by the less attractive buildings on the edge of town. The historic center is a treasure. Through the historic Porto Santo Stefano Gate is the largest square in town, the Piazza Roma. In it is the 17th Century Palazzo Ducale, the grand civic building. It is now a townhall, a library, and a tourist information office. In the heart of the old town is Piazza Plebiscito with an imposing 18th Century church dedicated to Saint Martin, the town patron saint. The Basilica of San Martino is a beautiful example of Rococo design. Like other hill towns in Puglia, it is not a high traffic tourist destination with specific sights, the old town of Martina Franca is worth visiting for its gently moving old-world pace. The whitewashed houses,with exterior stairs lined with pots of geraniums, and ornamental balcony railings add to the charm here.The narrow streets that meander into squares filled with baroque churches recall an ambiance of another time and add to the allure of Martina Franca
Ostuni, the luminous “white city,” is crowned by its glorious 15th Century Gothic cathedral surrounded by defensive walls. Gothic influences are rare find in a valley dominated by trulli, Baroque and Rococo architecture. The layout of the historic part of town is medieval. The bright white town cascades down from the cathedral in a maze of narrow streets, alleyways, stairways and arches, with vivid views of the sea. The intensely blue and green wooden doors and shutters, the pots of vivid red geraniums seem to spring from the whitewashed buildings. The lime whitewash was thought to reflect the heat, and have antiseptic properties to protect from disease. Disease was foremost in their thoughts since the plague hit this region in the middle ages.
The late-Gothic style cathedral is the best-known landmark, though the interior and side chapels are Baroque. Palazzo Vescovile and La Loggia (an arched corridor on the upper level) are also in the piazza, along with Palazzo del Seminario. In the Palazzo Vescovile are the remains of a 12th Century castle. Palazzo Municipale began as a Franciscan convent in the 14th Century. In the 19th Century it was expanded and repurposed into a Neoclassical style townhall. The Church of Santo Spirito is also worth seeing.
Ostuni is a town you get lost in. Just head down one of the narrow side streets.
Often called the “Florence of the South,” Lecce, has a vivacious Baroque old town. Its mix of people reflect its history: founded by the Greeks, conquered by the Romans, visited by the Crusades, and then by the Ottomans. It was under the Spanish rule that Lecce’s Baroque old town was built and renovated. The Baroque buildings are constructed of local stone from a luminous golden limestone quarry. The old town can be entered though the original city gates, the Porta Napoli styled after a Roman Triumphal arch in 1548, and the Porta Rudiae, the first gate into old town. Porta San Biagio, not far from the Museo Faggiano, has a fascinating history: residents of a private home accidentally discovered 2,500 years of history under their floor boards!
The Piazza del Duomo, a baroque vision, is one of the city’s primary squares. The Duomo was built in the 12th Century and renovated in the 17th Century in Lecce-Baroque style. A bell tower was added during the makeover. The piazza also contains the Episcopal palace and the Museum of Sacred Art. The Basilica di Santa Croce, off Via Umberto, is baroque and lavishly decorated. Saint Oronzo, a bronze statue on a column, is the city’s patron saint. The statue is the focal point of Piazza Sant ‘Oronzo, which is site of the Roman amphitheater ruins. This animated piazza has plenty of cafes and restaurants to enjoy.